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Glenn Close Dresses Up in 'Albert Nobbs'

Glenn Close plays a 19th century cross dresser in this quiet drama

“I think you are the strangest man I’ve ever met,” cheerful chambermaid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) tells Albert Nobbs (recent Oscar-nominee Glenn Close) during a long walk in the park.

On one hand, she is absolutely right. Albert is a painfully shy, serious butler who works at a posh hotel. Nobody knows much about Mr. Nobbs other than he does an excellent job caring for the hotel’s guests. 

But Helen is also very, very wrong for Albert isn’t a man at all. He is a woman, who decided to live as a man in order to gain employment. We never learn much about his life as a female, other than it was lonely and traumatic.

Now as an adult, Albert lives in fear of his secret being revealed and his years of secrecy has left him with an almost Asperger’s-like aversion to social interaction, along with a naive view on gender and relationships. Albert’s dream is to open a tobacco shop and get married, but his concept of marriage is more about convenience and financial support than love or even sexuality. Something tells me that Albert would have no idea what to do with the naked male form…or even a female one for that matter.

"Strangest and Saddest"

Albert, who for the sake of ease I’ll refer to as a "he," is one of the strangest and saddest characters I’ve run into. I truthfully don’t know what to make of him or the movie his character rests on. I must confess that, for the first time in my 6+ months of doing this column, a movie has sorta stumped me. Perhaps this is due to my unfamiliarity with the “Masterpiece” English drama genre, for which this movie shares many similarities. The setting is a London hotel before the days when employees would be subjected to an insurance physical. Many of the supporting cast also would fit in on PBS. There’s the dowdy mistress, gossipy maids, starcrossed lovers and a rascally, handsome male (Aaron Johnson).

While those characters may blend into the woodwork, housepainter Mr. Page does not. We first meet Mr. Page when he is asked to share a room with Mr. Nobbs for the night while he does work on the hotel. From the moment Mr. Page walks on screen we know that he is also a woman in disguise (played by Janet McTeer) but somehow no one in the hotel has suspicions about the high voiced handyman who looks like a slightly more feminine k.d. lang. Even Albert doesn’t figure out it, until Page exposes her very unmanly chest.

Their platonic friendship forms the most interesting part of the film. Both use drag as a way to sidestep the cultural sexism and support themselves financially. For Page, though, it seems to be a uniform that she happily puts on daily just as the hotel’s doctor (Brendan Gleason) always wears a stethoscope around his neck. But for Nobbs, the double-breasted suit and bowtie seem like a straightjacket. But, as the expression goes, it’s better to stick with the devil you know and Albert is so far into his charade, he cannot even utter (or remember) his real name.  

Missing Something

The comparison between them was interesting and, indeed, the film does present many thought-provoking themes. But as I said in my review of “,” “Intellectual interest isn’t always your friend at the movies,” and that statement also feels true of this movie.

Besides the themes, I just didn’t find enough story to keep me fully interested. And, although very well acted, Nobbs is portrayed in a way that’s so uncomfortable, so strange, I never was able to connect or even really sympathize with him. I felt bad but I didn’t really care, partly because I didn’t understand him fully.

All this is too bad because I was hopeful in the first act of “Albert Nobbs” and grateful I didn’t end up at a screening of “The Gray” or “One For The Money." The woman-dressing-as-a-man concept seemed new and full of potential. Was Albert a lesbian and masquerading as a man the only way to live a happy, full life? Did he want to eventually live fulltime as a woman? Why does his gender seem more than just a disguise for job security?

They never went in any of those directions and ended up with, in my opinion, a lesser film. Perhaps subtle is best and I’m missing something. That is all too possible. And perhaps i'm still not sure what to make of the film. That is also possible. But as the purpose of this column is to share my opinion, I can’t in all good conscience say that “Albert Nobbs” is a successful film.

Maybe I should have seen Liam Neeson get attacked by wolves in "The Grey" or Katherine Heigl do whatever she does in her new release. At least those movies don't feature an emotionally tortured asexual butler (or at least I'm guessing not).

  • Some adventure – “” / "The Gray"
  • Something fun - ""
  • Something for just about everyone — ""
  • For the family — "Beauty & The Beast 3D" 

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